WCAL: A Trust Betrayed

Nearly three years after St. Olaf sold its radio station to MPR for a pile of cash, it's a long way from living the decision down.

McNabb argues that WCAL was a charitable trust created by donors to the station and held by St. Olaf. He cites school histories going back decades that detail donations from students, alumni, and listeners. The money helped build the station's infrastructure, including the campus building that housed it beginning in 1931, as well as the major transmitter erected 60 years later in Rosemount that made WCAL's signal crystal-clear throughout the metro area.

In order to sell the station, the school should have gone to a judge to ask permission to liquidate its charitable trust, McNabb argues. "I don't think any of those people knew they were dealing with a charitable trust. I don't think they listened to the station or knew the history of it."

As early as 2004, he sent letters to the Attorney General's Office imploring it to look into the sale. But it wasn't until St. Olaf went to court late last year—to get permission to put the remainder of the money donated to WCAL over the years into the school's own endowment—that McNabb saw his chance to argue his case before a judge.

Alumni are cutting St. Olaf out of their wills in protest of the decision to sell WCAL
Alumni are cutting St. Olaf out of their wills in protest of the decision to sell WCAL

St. Olaf officials declined to comment for this story, directing all inquiries to the school's director of marketing-communications, Amy Gage. "It doesn't strike us as being in anyone's interest to debate this in the press right now," she said.

The school's position, spelled out in court papers, is that the station was never a separate entity from the college—it had its own budget and board, but was subject to college oversight—and that the school thus had no need to get permission to sell it.

Robert Stein, a University of Minnesota law professor, isn't so sure. "The key question is the legal status of the station," he says. "Was it an asset of the educational institution that could be sold, or did it constitute a public charitable trust? It's worthy of exploration."

Both sides will file final arguments with the court on July 20. The case will then be in Judge Gerald Wolf's hands.

No matter the outcome, the school is sure to be the worse for wear. At the very least, the clumsy handling of the sale has hurt St. Olaf's image as a principled church school.

"This looks like a terrible blunder. They got millions of dollars from the sale, but what did they lose?" says Voxland, the alum whose predecessors had donated to St. Olaf during the Depression. "I was looking forward to always being in contact with and nurtured by a station of that quality. It's a broken promise."

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